Wednesday, February 28

Deciphering Interviews: Emotional Intelligence

If you have ever opened a package to find that the wrapping was better than the contents, you have all the experience you need to understand the danger of placing too much emphasis on a candidate interview. As Daniel Goleman, author of Working With Emotional Intelligence, wrote as an opening: "The rules for work are changing. We're being judged by a new yard stick: not just how smart we are, or by our training and expertise, but also how we handle ourselves and each other." Ah yes, packaging.

While I had been introduced to the concept years ago, the label "Emotional Intelligence" (EI) was relatively new to me until an associate of mine recommended Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Given my interest in behavioral psychology (I work in advertising and minored in psychology, so go figure), I enjoyed the book, pulled several gems from it, and it remains on my shelf despite the fact that Don Blohowiak, from the Lead Well Institute, suggested a better title would be ""Three Ph.D.s Cite Tons of Research to Convince Business Executives (Yet Again) that Feelings Matter to People at Work" over at

Like virtually any issue, polarizing the issue seems useless though it does raise some interesting questions. As an employer, human resources director, recruiter, or team builder, how much emphasis should we place on interviews, especially in a world where some applicants are better equipped than others. After all, I coach some people, political candidates and public relations practitioners, to withstand the pressure of an aggressive media interview and some embrace it quite nicely ... but does that mean they have any more substance than the next person? (Hopefully, I've already decided that before I work with them.)

I am reminded of an experience when our company was just a few years old, before we restructured it to be modeled a bit more like a legal or consulting firm and less like a advertising agency or manufacturer. After considerable success with a few interns, we decided to hire a full-time employee — someone who could increase our presence in the marketplace and handle some large volume writing services work.

We narrowed down the applicants to three and scheduled interviews. Since one had already accepted a position elsewhere, we were left with two candidates who brought very divergent assets and qualities to the table. One was less experienced but showed potential and had a friendly, enthusiastic, team player presentation. The other had more experience and insisted she knew everything about communication she needed to know to help us take our company to the next level (which perplexed me because I didn't know everything, and still don't).

In short, one had fewer skill sets but a high EI (l don't like labels, but let's called her the Enthusiastic Presentable Upstart for simplicity) and the other had higher skill sets but a lower EI (Experienced Unpresentable Egomaniac). After the interviews, we ultimately decided that we would be better off hiring the Enthusiastic Presentable Upstart. The other one, well, it was very, very hard to like her, especially after she outlined her need for structure in a field where there seldom is structure.

Unfortunately, our new hire only lasted three months, which was about six weeks too long by any measure. The allure of EI packaging had worn off, leaving us with an employee who struggled to write the most basic news release (come to find out, her portfolio samples had been generously edited by her former employer). It was a valuable learning lesson.

In retrospect, sometimes I think that I would have had more success polishing and humbling the Experienced Unpresentable Egomaniac than I did trying to fast track skills sets for the Enthusiastic Presentable Upstart, which leads me back to the original question: how much emphasis do you place on a candidate interview? Or, is it easier to teach EI and presentation/interview skills than round up the skill sets required for mid-level job description?

In fact, as an additional point of interest, I've noticed that I'm running into more higher EI professionals in the field who look good on paper, present well, make stellar first impressions, and ask the right questions. But then, on the first project, they completely baffle everyone with apparent ignorance in communication (asking the media for "tear sheets" to prove they ran a news release comes to mind). Sure, I frequently build teams for clients (primarily vendor teams), but would be interested to glean some additional insight from an industry that interviews people all the time.


Tuesday, February 27

Running With Rumors: Social Media

When you look at a social media tracking sites like Blogpulse, graph spikes tell part of the story: when she made the finals, after her first performance, and when both sets of photos (the real ones and the fake ones) were seeded by social media. Without question, social media (blogs, vlogs, message boards, and e-mail lists) is changing everything. Sometimes it's for the better. Sometimes it's not.

The best of it, as Anders Gronstedt, president of the Gronstedt Group, describes in the Communication World Bulletin (CW Bulletin), which is a members-only electronic publication available to members of the International Association of Business Communicators, is that "Phenomena like MySpace, Facebook, Second Life, Flickr and YouTube aren't just Web sites. They are platforms of collaboration, where sprawling and vibrant communities socialize, innovate, transact and learn."

The worst of it, as seen by the Barba case study, is inexperienced people wanting to attract attention and drive their "hits" up by perpetrating the hottest topic regardless of accuracy. In many cases, their posts are devoid of second tier research. In this case, that means they literally cut and paste the most recent post they found elsewhere (sometimes without reading, let alone thinking) and attempt to claim it as an original idea.

Why should they? For the most part, while some myth originators have faced prosecution, few myth reposters ever do. Oh well, they say, after posting or linking to the lewdest photos and passing judgement on someone who wasn't even in the shot. They are neither embarrassed nor apologetic for contributing to mass character assassination and sometimes blatant plagiarism.

As CNNMoney pointed out nearly a year ago (sourced from CW Bulletin): the new culture on the Web is all about consumer creation, composed of nearly 30 million blogs and 70 million photos (on Flickr alone). With a click of the mouse, anyone can be a journalist, a photographer, or a DJ. The audience is the 1 billion-plus strong.

Angelo Fernando, a marketing and communication manager at interactive marketing agency iCrossing (also in CW Bulletin), cautions business communicators that before they jump up and down about social media and the wonderfully transparent world it is creating, they might consider the consequences. "Leaky information, errant e-mails and inappropriate instant messages now have the capacity to become very, very public," he writes.

Based on the Barba story, they don't even have to be "real leaks" to attract attention; the first set of less revealing photographs was enough to erode her credibility, making room for the second set of fakes to take hold. And nowadays, as social media goes, so does traditional media. The Boston Herald proves this as its wire services story teases "More salacious Internet photos - purportedly of “American Idol” wannabe Antonella Barba - surfaced yesterday but spokespeople for the FOX mega-hit reality show continued to remain mum on her fate."

"The new pictures depict a woman, alleged to be the brunette Jersey girl, posing partially nude on a World War II veterans’ memorial. Hardcore porn pictures of a woman - purportedly Barba - engaged in a sex act were also posted on the Web but a friend swears they aren’t the reality-show contestant," continued the story. I don't know about you, but this reads to me as if the Boston Herald has planted enough bias in this article to call her guilty.

Indeed, it's a sad day when traditional media no longer bothers to check sources or invest in its own research, driving home the point that the lewdest photos are "purportedly Barba" while a much fewer number of bloggers have already established, well beyond a reasonable doubt, that the girl in the pornographic images is NOT Barba. Ho hum. It's the not the first time, and it won't be the last.

Barba is in an especially difficult position because under American Idol rules, she cannot defend herself by addressing the media (traditional or otherwise) until she is ousted. Some viewers don't seem to care, citing that she is hardly the best singer and not very likely to win. But then again, they dismiss that no one would believe Taylor Hicks would go on to win in season 5 based on his early shows. In fact, based on album sales, Chris Daughtry looks like the winner despite who ultimately wore the American Idol crown.

Sure, Barba can partially blame herself for not realizing there is no such thing as a private conservation or photo shoot for that matter. This is doubly true today, given that America has seemingly been taken in again by yellow journalism. But, despite Barba setting the stage with typical college pics, the rest of the responsibility belongs to bad reporting — social and traditional media alike.

Does this mean I'm no longer embracing social media? Not hardly. I just hope we can get past the growing pains and focus on the best of it. I hope social media is not the beginning of the end for corporate transparency, leading to a world where companies have cause to spy on employees for fear of self-preservation.

I hope traditional media might consider that it will continue to erode its already jeopardized credibility unless they stop reacting to social media and stick to their primary job of finding the truth (because someone has got to do it). And I hope that public relations professionals will pick up the pace to address the major communication shortfall with social media. The very idea that they continue to source numbers from a year-old CNNMoney story, tells me they are still catching up.

Maybe at the end of the day, all I'm really asking is if we want our Internet future to be Star Trek or Escape From New York.


Monday, February 26

Selling No Comment: Antonella Barba

American Idol has no comment on 20-year-old contestant Antonella Barba's wet T-shirt (spoiler: just shy of topless, but no links here) photos that surfaced last week. This time, after learning public relations lessons the hard way with Derrell and Terrell Brittenum, American Idol is sticking to the statement that it conducts background checks (but largely stays out of the personal lives of contestants).

Indeed, there are a handful of times when "no comment" withstands the scrutiny of the media, and making comments or personal assessments on the private actions (or past actions) of employees is one of them. Considering this is true in extreme cases, American Idol will be smart to stick to the issues that involve the show and off any speculation of Barba's past.

The buzz has, however, driven Barba to the top of most search engines, outpacing Britney Spears' self-destructive behavior by a healthy margin according to TMZ. Several less flattering shots were taken from her Myspace (the photos have been taken down) profile.

While there seems to be a clear contrast between the innocence of the Catholic University student (she said she did the shoot to pay for college) portrayed and the one who might pose for a professional photographer in somewhat revealing poses, Barba's photos and the context bear little resemblance to those that resulted in second season contestant Frenchie Davis being booted from the show. (Davis was featured on a porn site.)

American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe, who had not seen any photos when Entertainment Weekly first asked if Barba would go the way of Davis, said ''We have really good background checks on everybody, and we deal with that every season. It's sad, isn't it, that your best friends are the ones that come forward with information that will go to Smoking Gun or put your photographs on the Web?''

Over the weekend, several more sexually explicit photos that are allegedly of Barba have been produced, but their authenticity is in question. While the girl in the new photos seems to resemble Barba, it seems probable they will be disproved in time.

The net sum of all the photos is that Barba seems several levels shy of producing anything even comparable to the judgement lapse exhibited by former Miss Nevada Katie Rees. Then again, no one has ever said being "wholesome" was a key ingredient for an American Idol contestant.

Still, there are a lot of lessons that can be learned here for anyone who ever hoped to one day pursue a path that would make them a public figure. Just say "no" because what seems like a secret will always surface when you least expect it and possibly cost you a crown, or in this case, a little more time to polish lackluster vocals. (It will be interesting to see if the pics have any bearing on this week's vote).

Over here, we call it the Wall Street Journal equation. If you wouldn't want it featured in The Times or Wall Street Journal, don't do it.

For employers, with exception to how any incident might impact your company (or show), it's best to stay out of the second-guessing game. Stay away from assessing the personal choices of employees and stick to the relevant answers: will they stay or will they go. With the exception to Lythgoe expressing some sympathy for Barba, it seems to me that American Idol has finally got that part of its public relations right.


Friday, February 23

Discussing JetBlue: Levick

Richard S. Levick is the president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, which was named Crisis Agency of the Year in 2005 by The Holmes Report. The report provides in-depth news analysis and features on trends and issues in the public relations business.

Levick's firm, which has offices in New York, Washington D.C. and London, directs high-profile communications, including: the Catholic Church scandals, the spinach e-coli crisis, large legal and regulatory actions globally, and a number of the most significant matters arising out of the Middle East and Latin America.

Levick has been making the rounds in the media, discussing JetBlue and giving it high marks in handling its crisis. Recently, in an interview with he said "JetBlue has run to the crisis, taking responsibility not just for itself but for the entire industry."

Specifically, Levick outlined what he calls five key tenets of sound crisis management:

• Run to it. Avoid "duck and cover."
• All companies will have a crisis. Be prepared.
• Know your crisis team. Now.
• Make a sacrifice. Companies often want to win it all.
• Avoid saying "no comment." A crisis abhors a vacuum.

"The critical role is to run to the crisis," he told ConsumerAffairs. "People don't want to sue people they like and trust. What happens so often is that CEOs lawyer-up and say nothing."

On any given day of the week, I would agree with Levick. It's sound advice, pure and simple, except something with JetBlue has not sat well with me. In between discussing the finer points of introducing an abbreviated name in a new release to sharing some real life crisis communication situations I've worked on to about a dozen student public relations professionals last night, I think I decided what it might be. There are some fine details missed by JetBlue, and American Airlines might have noticed.

Anyone can write up some crisis communication points, but the devil in the details is how those points are interpreted and applied to a unique crisis communication situation. For example, if you overlay Moving Beyond Bad News, which we presented a few days ago, you might come up with the notion that JetBlue did everything right too. Or not.

Here are a few key points from that list that seem to be making a difference:

Have you satisfied the public interest? If you want to move beyond bad news, you have to commit to regularly reporting additional information until no public interest remains. In JetBlue's case, it may be oversatisfying public interest. It could very well be that it has apologized so much that the effectiveness of the apology is wearing thin.

Have you included positive steps being taken to address the situation? Naturally, this is being addressed by JetBlue's Customer Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, one might wonder if it forever branded the Customer Bill of Rights to the original crisis. Perhaps it would have been better to wait a few weeks, after resolving the remedy specific to the incident.

Did you offer restitution? As much as JetBlue has been apologizing, it seems to me it has buried the fact that it did indeed offer restitution. So much so, some people don't know that the airline's future plan includes giving passengers aboard departing planes delayed for three to four hours a $100 voucher if the voucher would be equal to the amount of their round-trip ticket. Given the amount of money spent on paid advertising apologies by the company, one might also wonder if that money would have been better spent with the passengers aboard the planes.

Perhaps it's these small weaknesses in the plan that reinforced American Airlines decision to beef up service at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, a move that will put additional pressure on Delta Air Lines and JetBlue. American Airlines has said that its plans are unrelated to JetBlue, and the Newsday article includes that JetBlue folks believe the plan will not have any impact.

For public relations practitioners, I hope this also provides some conversation in understanding that formulas, bulleted action plans, are great for guidance, but are never absolute. Every crisis communication situation is different, and requires a modified course of action.

Worse, if everyone over apologized all the time about things that were at least partly out of their control, sooner or later, the public won't believe any of them, no matter how sincere or appropriate the message and its meaning. That said, please don't allow me to convince anyone that JetBlue is doing something wrong. Contrary to that, they are doing more right than most.


Thursday, February 22

Jumping The Shark: JetBlue

JetBlue Airways has always been about innovating a new airline, one that offers value, service and style. It does things differently, from leather seats with 36 inches of leg room and free DIRECTV to name brand snacks and sommelier chosen wines. So maybe it's no surprise that the airline is deploying a slightly different brand of crisis communication, which includes appealing its apology to the court of social media and anyone who will listen.

At a glance, the crisis communication strategy that began after an ice storm caused the airline to cancel more than 250 of 505 daily flights and significantly delayed 10 flights on the tarmac with customers waiting on board for hours, seems pretty spot on. The airline was relatively quick (some say too slow) to acknowledge, apologize, explain, learn from, satisfy public interest, and offer restitution, and has taken all of this to the media, social media, company blog (flight log), and even YouTube.

A few people might notice I left empathy off the list, but not because COO David Neeleman missed the mark. On the contrary, Neeleman is one of the most credible corporate spokespeople I've seen appear during a crisis in some time. He obviously knows that sometimes the messenger is the message. In a net assessment of comments all over the place, it seems people want to believe him because it's nearly impossible to see anything but sincerity in the man. Personally, I believe him.

I'm not alone. Despite cutting earnings guidance for the quarter, traders on Wednesday sent JetBlue shares up about 2.2 percent to close at $12.19 on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Several analysts has even said JetBlue's numerous apologies may help stave off long-term pain for investors.

"We believe that JetBlue's PR efforts since the last weekend have been rather successful at expressing humility and embarrassment about the problems," wrote Morgan Stanley analyst William J. Greene in a note to clients, according to The Associated Press. "This mea culpa has likely gone a long way to mitigate customer frustrations."

Although some less trusting public relations practitioners are considering the "spin" factor, I remain unconvinced that JetBlue is simply spinning. However, I can agree that it may be jumping the shark. I'm not saying it is; I'm only recognizing the potential.

Can you apologize too much? Can you produce too many course corrections in the aftermath of a crisis? Can you make a crisis bigger than it needs to be, even with the best intentions? Can you reach out to too many people in an attempt to offset negative impressions, involving those who probably didn't need to be involved (how many YouTube enthusiasts fly JetBlue or how many JetBlue customers visit YouTube)?

I'm not saying what it has done is wrong or right as only time will tell, but maybe, just maybe, it has accepted too much responsibility, coming up just short of apologizing for an ice storm, which no one believes it caused. Sure, mistakes were made and it's admirable JetBlue identified several. The Customer Bill of Rights is a good idea, but I wonder if the timing was right. Some people think so, according to the Contra Costa Times.

"JetBlue is taking a mistake and using it not only to address their own mistakes, but to set new standards for the entire industry," Richard Levick, chief executive of Levick Strategic Communications Inc. in New York, said in an interview Tuesday. "David Neeleman is running to the crisis. He is everywhere, saying, 'I'm responsible and I'll fix it.'"

Without question, it is always an interesting case study when someone launches a public relations and advertising campaign out of a crisis communication plan, especially when the concept could perhaps head off congress imposing a federal Customer Bill of Rights (I hope the industry doesn't see increased government regulation and demonstrates it can be adept at governing itself).

So at the end of the day, we fall somewhere in the middle. There is little question that JetBlue has demonstrated savvy in crisis communication, but one wonders if the success of the initial effort will eventually lead it to jump the shark.

But even if it does, you have to recognize JetBlue will likely receive continued support from some of the most loyal customers in the industry. While I have never flown JetBlue, I know plenty of people who do. They always rave about their flights and look surprised when I mention I have yet to board that airline, as if one has not flown until they've flown JetBlue.


Wednesday, February 21

Chasing Tails: Schrödinger's Cat

Every now and again, I reference seemingly unrelated topics (psychology, philosophy, quantum physics, and even theology among them) and then attempt to apply them to communication. To me, they fit together. Others disagree, and that is okay.

Recently, I referenced quantum physics in a response to someone who asked, basically, whether bloggers were obligated to contact the people they post about, especially if there is a perception that the post is critical. It's a good question.

In response, I posted that as someone who has worked as a journalist beyond social media (and occasionally still do), I have often asked myself the same question, but eventually reached the conclusion that no, that argument, while valid, doesn't hold up. From a strict communication perspective, I likened blogs to op-eds, where observations/opinions are made and anyone (on most blogs) have an opportunity to comment (agree/disagree) with equal space or comment (agree/disagree) on their own blog if they prefer. (Besides, I imagine it would be a public relations nightmare to field calls from hundreds of bloggers.)

But I also alluded to the prospect of quantum physics as part of my rationale without explanation. I'd like to take a stab at tying that in, recognizing I am a mere novice on the subject by comparison to probably anybody in that field.

In simplest terms, quantum physicists have long asked whether or not the observation of science could potentially impact the results of what is observed. In other words, does the observation of the atom and its components, quantum and whatnot, alter what they do?

In attempting to address this question, Schrödinger's Cat, proposed by Erwin Schrödinger in 1935, demonstrates the conflict between "what quantum theory tells us is true about the nature and behavior of matter on the microscopic level and what we observe to be true about the nature and behavior of matter on the macroscopic level." Part of the lesson is referred to as the quantum indeterminacy or the observer's paradox: the observation or measurement itself affects an outcome, so that it can never be known what the outcome would have been if it were not observed.

Applying this to communication, I submit that the more direct interaction between a blogger and the subject matter, the more likely the blogger could potentially alter the outcome of any communication study. Sure, I know what some people are thinking right now: if that is true, then could the post itself alter the outcome? Absolutely, but with some limitations.

With the advent of social media, posts are already part of the equation just as traditional media always has been. So, while a post after the fact may or may not alter the outcome, the same information shared privately before any action occurs would almost certainly change the outcome, perhaps negating the future post.

For example, purposely avoiding mention of where this conversation came up, let's say I sent John Edwards an e-mail (I didn't) that said "John, what gives? Your only way out of this communication mess is if the bloggers resign." Let's say he took the advice to heart and those two bloggers resigned the next day, negating the need to send out that ill-advised statement. That would have dramatically altered the case study whereas what I did, write about that case study in real time with my comments bearing no more weight than any others, was simply part of the total communication equation.

So without question, the side effect of transparency or being a public figure changes behavior. Imagine for a moment, Schrödinger's Cat placed in a glass box with hundreds of people shouting conflicting messages that the cat understood. Surely, that will cause a different outcome than Schrödinger prescribed. Yet, in the study of communication and transparency and being a public figure, this is precisely the the environment in which studies are conducted.

Here's another example: will a teenager left alone with a can of beer react differently than if left alone with friends who drink beer or differently if he is left alone with parents who discourage drinking. You bet the outcome will be different, but it will be even more different if we tell the teenager exactly what we intend to do. It is also a possibility that the teenager who learns they were observed after the fact might react differently the next time out, but that is the very essence of a learning process.

Please, if you are one of the handful of people who regularly read this blog, keep in mind that I rarely if ever have any opinion about a subject beyond their behavior unless specifically noted. Case in point: whether Verizon is a good company or bad company is irrelevant on this blog (though I am a Verizon customer with no cause to change plans). What is relevant is that I disagreed with certain aspects of the company's communication, which I write about here for very specific reasons, including: public relations students who attend my class or anyone hoping to glean a different, hopefully interesting, perspective on communication.

In simplest terms, I believe there are two ways to learn something. One is the hard way by doing and making mistakes (or perhaps doing it right). One is the easy way, which is by learning from others who already did it the hard way. It is my hope by focusing on best practices and more often worst examples that more people can learn the easy way.

In conclusion, if you or your company is the subject of a post here, you are welcome to post comments or e-mail me (if you prefer private correspondence) like anyone as I will not be contacting you (simply put, pre-post advice is reserved for clients). However, I am always happy to correct any misinformation, clarify a point, listen to your opinion, or whatever; whereas I am equally obliged to disagree if there is cause under certain circumstances.


Tuesday, February 20

Knowing When To Comment: Jason Goldberg

Starting in December 2006, Jason Goldberg, CEO of Jobster, embarked on what the New York Times and many others have classified as crisis communication gone wrong. Using his blog as a primary means of communication, Goldberg hinted at, then denied, then confirmed layoff rumors during the holidays with such abandon that the company’s Technorati ranking knocked Britney Spears out of the top spot for popular searches. Through it all, most members of the media and social media scoffed at Goldberg, calling him everything from insensitive and ignorant to brash and dishonest.

While most companies find away to move beyond bad news that impacted a mere 60 positions, Jobster seems unable to break away from the dated story despite Goldberg offering a belated apology and Jobster making several announcements that seem to suggests its business model is working, including the news that it beat Monster out on the coveted deal with Facebook.

So why can’t Jobster shake it off? Because Goldberg has a reputed disdain for menus; the man already knows what he wants. Why waste time on an exhaustive list of options?

When your communication, even blogging, becomes formulaic and you’re not willing to consider others options, you’re almost always going to make mistakes. Sometimes the mistake is simple, like missing the special everyone is raving about. Sometimes the mistake is more costly, like the host putting in your usual order on the one day you wanted something else.

I think that is exactly what happened when Goldberg erred in choosing to comment on a largely unrelated post to presumably, according to some, challenge my assessment of his mishandling crisis communication (which he already admitted to and apologized for anyway). Known for being fierce with critics once upon a time, he ordered up a “chat” of sorts when a chat wasn’t really what he wanted.

When you attempt to take a casual observer to task after the newsworthiness of the incident has long died out and most people have forgotten, you are almost always betting against yourself because the misguided incident will be rehashed all over again. What you really risk is diluting and distracting from any good or fluffed news you have. So why bother?

Compounding this apparent timing issue, Goldberg never considered that the person he was sizing up as opposition not only teaches continuing education courses as part of his community service commitment, but also happens to be a hired gun of sorts for dozens of companies when a crisis does strike (among other things).

Of course, this assumes I was ever opposition, which, based on my posts (you can source by clicking the label “Jobster” on my blog), I was never exclusively an adversary. Sometimes I was a cheerleader in my assessments, when warranted.

Highlights of positive comments are not limited to: complimenting him on continuing to address the media and social media during the crisis he created, the well-thought out layoff announcement that was better than par, the offer to help place his former employees, and his public apology (though belated). In one post, I also defended Jobster when a competitor missed its news opportunity to pick on the company. In fact, in several incidents, one might even surmise that Goldberg coincidentally adopted strategies similar to those I posted as part of my living case study assessment.

The best time to comment on a blog, or engage the media and/or social media, is when the engagement is timely. Waiting almost two months only serves as a reminder that something bad happened.

If you are engaging to challenge the writer or to correct any errors, it’s probably best to conduct an assessment of the work. For media, the rules have always been fairly clear when you are the subject of a story:

• Are all the facts in the piece accurate?
• Is the story complete or cite additional resources?
• Is the story and any opinions offered fair and relevant?
• Are opinions included from multiple sides and sources?
• Was there appropriate depth to the story given the topic context?
• Was there an appropriate opportunity for others to leave comments?

In the case study of Jobster’s crisis communication debacle, at least on my blog, the answer is yes to all of these questions. Certainly there could and can be disagreement on the partial menu of communication choices I shared (as Recruiting Animal argued about in one post), I proposed any number of them would have been better than the non-menu approach chosen at the time.

In fact, Goldberg’s first comment to me is unsurprisingly similar to the case study. Originally, he teased at, then denied, then confirmed layoffs. Now, Goldberg teased at, then denied, and has apparently confirmed no public conversation with me. While that is fine with me, it doesn’t make sense from a communication standpoint. His real critics must be wondering if he has cold feet.

Look, if you want to comment or perhaps correct media or social media errors, it’s best to (but hardly absolute) do this:

• Choose to respond in a timely manner when the topic is still hot.
• Read the entire body of the ongoing work to ensure you are not mislabeling someone.
• Gather at least some knowledge about the person, people, or media you are responding to.
• Stay positive and reasoned, keeping your cool in order to keep the focus on corrections and clarifications, unless you’ve created a more satirical persona.
• Stay focused on what matters if you hope to maintain credibility and transparency.
• Recognize that engagement is a limited commitment, and that the person you engage will likely respond.

Of the three questions Goldberg asked, only one was worthwhile while two read as nothing more than an exercise in puffery, in my opinion. Nevertheless, I answered them all conscientiously; especially the first, as it was a fine example of the smarter questions Goldberg has been known to ask about blogging.

Unfortunately, the allusion that there would be a conversation seems to have been an illusion, probably because it wasn’t so sincere of an offer anyway. It’s a shame really. I have often found many of his previous questions relevant though sometimes not with the best timing, perhaps because he doesn’t like menus.

And, in the end, all he gained was an opportunity for people to learn how not to manage bad news, like layoffs, all over again.


Friday, February 16

Making Radio: ProComm

Nobody likes to give away all their secrets, but I'm about to give one away: ProComm.

ProComm, which is located in North Carolina, is often my first choice among radio and voiceover production companies. (Yes, we might be based in Las Vegas, but we really, really like ProComm.) So do a lot of other people: Time Magazine, Disney, and MasterCard among them.

ProComm was one of the first production companies to pool its voice talent from other markets like Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis, Miami, and Atlanta and then offer clients (people like me and my clients) an opportunity to screen them online. All the production participants (technicians, talent, and producers) are then patched in from various locations, allowing people like me to call in and effectively produce a national-caliber spot (whether it's local, regional, or national).

You never really appreciate such a tool until you have a very bad cold like I did about a month ago. We had a very busy production schedule with eight spots as part of a multi-market campaign for one of our favorite clients. At a walk-in studio, I would have had to reschedule the entire job or send someone else to produce the spots and hope for the best. Not so with ProComm. I climbed out of bed for a few hours each day and got to work — at home.

The quality is outstanding. Time after time, ProComm has demonstrated it keeps pace with our scripts. In fact, just last night (although I was teaching), the same client I was producing spots for about a month ago was recognized for its "Summer Gas Prices" spot that aired last summer. It received an IABC/Las Vegas Bronze Quill award for communication excellence in radio.

The client is Black Gaming, better known for its three resorts CasaBlanca, Oasis, and Virgin River located in Mesquite, Nevada, which is about 90 minutes north of Las Vegas. It's owned by Randy Black, one of the nicest and most authentic resort owners in the gaming industry (he also plays himself in the spots, which were recorded locally by Dave Martin).

The spot that won last night was the joint concept between myself and Scott DeAngelo, vice president of marketing for all three resorts. Scott noticed a trend last summer that people where reluctant to travel as far due to the perception that gas prices were just too high (prices were well over $3 per gallon in Las Vegas). So, based on that idea, he let us run loose to write, cast, and produce several spots that pitted Black, the "people's resort owner," against "greedy oil companies" who were, in effect, preventing people from taking a vacation. Add to this concept three great resorts for the right price, and you have everything you need to produce results.

While I won't share the entire case study here, I will offer up that the spot drove occupancy to record levels (about 10 percent higher) than previous years during the same tracking period and received some fine compliments from, believe it or not, other resort owners and marketing directors. Unlike many competitions, results are an important factor in the IABC/Las Vegas Bronze Quills.

So, kudos all around. A great product, a top marketing guru, creative scripts, great production, solid talent (including Randy Black and ProComm professionals), and a smart media buy (also DeAngelo's handiwork), and it's easy to win. No, I don't mean win awards: I mean win customers, which is really what it is all about.


Wednesday, February 14

Dissecting Demographics: Verizon

Marketing demographics are wonderful things for advertisers, allowing writers and designers to tailor the messages to very specific audiences based on any number of factors: age, income, automotive preference, etc. Although we benefit from such information, every now and then I wonder if we're dissecting our audiences too thin.

For instance, Verizon released information today to inform the media about its new campaign: "To inform African-Americans about Verizon's latest bundled services, Verizon Double Freedom and Verizon Triple Freedom, the company has launched a new television and print ad campaign that focuses on personalization."

The decision to create this campaign is based on extensive market research that "African-American consumers have a long history of customizing and personalizing their environments, from music and other artistic expressions to fashion to personal living spaces and more" (whatever more means).

Personally, I had no idea that African-Americans differed so greatly from other Americans on this point. But it is starting to make sense to me, given that all other Americans are virtually identical in terms of "environments, from music and other artistic expressions to fashion to personal living spaces and more" (whatever 'more' means).

As a result, Verizon's new campaign, with the theme "Personalize Life," portrays ways in which African-Americans can customize products and services from Verizon to fit their lifestyle and their needs.

"Verizon has had a long history of providing relevant messages specifically to our African-American customers," said Jeff McFarland, director of multicultural marketing for Verizon. "This new campaign lets our customers know that they can choose the services they need to help them enrich their lives and be on the best network, known for its 99.99 percent reliability."

Oh, I thought we were talking about African-Americans and their apparent dominance over "personalizing environments, from music and other artistic expressions to fashion to personal living spaces and more" (whatever 'more' means). Today's image, by the way, is of Verizon employees closely monitoring the reliability factor of at least 99.999. I cannot be certain, but there is something missing in the context of this topic. Look closely. Any guesses?

I'm not even going to discuss the commercial, which basically shows bundled packages that would probably appeal to most consumers, regardless of ethnicity. To me, the only thing African-American in the spot, as it is described, are African-Americans.

Is it any wonder, given this new campaign, that SnapDragon Consultants, a "brand insights firm," today released (just minutes before Verizon's release) that "Asian-American youth feel excluded and misunderstood by most brands. It's made worse by the fact that they see advertisers actively wooing the African-American and Hispanic markets."

This insight is one of ten things that SnapDragon Consultants says every brand should know about Asian-American youth.

Some other insights include: Asian-American youth are secret fans of "easy listening" adult contemporary music (lite FM is a hidden passion); there's a "hero gap" among Asian-American kids, which is being filled for many by activists from other cultures like Martin Luther King, Jr.; and they are not fond of 15 minutes of seemingly benign American Idol fame for William Hung, who perpetuated the worst stereotypes about Asian people and gave non-Asians permission to indulge in two years of racial stereotyping and mocking.

All this was released in honor of the upcoming Chinese New Year and an "ongoing initiative to deliver qualitative research and high-level insights on Asian-American youth to marketers interested in reaching this influential and growing demographic."

Look, I'm not saying Verizon is wrong for an attempt at marketing to a specific audience (though the news release seemed silly to me) nor that SnapDragon Consultants is wrong for bringing attention to the plight of Asian-American youth (it bordered on questionable to me). What I think is wrong is that marketers sometimes cut too deeply into their research and deduce erroneous conclusions because they either wrap an advertising campaign that appeals to everyone in ethnicity or collect too much qualitative data that seems to lack substance.

Sure, sometimes ethnically targeted marketing is smart, but in terms of research, I've always found "lifestyle choices" are much more revealing than racial profiling. And no, I don't mean lifestyle choices such as personalizing their environments, from music and other artistic expressions to fashion to personal living spaces and more" (whatever 'more' means).

I mean things like what magazines do they read, what artists do they listen to, and where do they go on vacation. That is much more revealing than people who are "secret fans" of a specific music (which I guess means they lie about what they listen to) or people who prefer to "personalize environments," which, the last time I checked, pretty much included everyone who could afford to.


Tuesday, February 13

Faking The Net: Sony

I've written about anonymous posters and blogs before, most recently about The Branding Foundry's ill-advised critique on anonymous posters. However, there is one time that the spirit of anonymous blogging is truly abused.

It's a growing trend that breaches ethics and crosses over to fraud: anonymous blogs written by companies to bolster positive reviews. It's not surprising to me that some companies would use anonymous blogs to bump up sales, but I am still surprised by which companies have engaged in spinning fiction and then attempt to justify their actions under the label stealth marketing.

Sony was just one of the companies exposed in late 2006. Considering Sony's annual sales exceeded $16.7 billion with plenty of products considered among the best in the field, it didn't make much sense that it would approve a fake blog, created by viral marketing firm Zipatoni to promote the PSP.

Although MR Wavetheory incorrectly suggests "all publicity is good publicity," the retired Silicon Valley venture capitalist turned blogger was right to say Sony may as well kept the "flog" up when it came under fire. That would have been a fine place to begin some crisis communication efforts.

Of course, the main reason this 2006 news is relevant today is because Sam Coates, writing for TimesOnline, reported and brought additional attention to the fact that "floggers" could face criminal prosecution under new rules that will soon come into force.

Businesses that write fake blog entries or create Web sites purporting to be from customers will fall foul of a European directive banning them from “falsely representing oneself as a consumer,” he writes. The change will also become law in the United Kingdom, establishing that floggers can be named and shamed by trading standards or even taken to court. This includes people who write fake reviews on Web sites such as Amazon. (Amazon did tighten its review procedures in 2004 after John Rechy gave himself a five-star review while posing as a reader from Chicago).

Incidentally, what consumers do not know is there are plenty of "pay-for-space" Web sites, magazines, tabloids, and television/radio shows that have been acting as neutral reviewers since publishing first came into fashion hundreds of years ago. Many of them do not provide the consumer any disclaimers or evidence that the reviews and/or puff pieces are paid advertisements, generally called advertorials.

Whether the new law will spill over to the "pay-for-space" arena is unclear. But what is clear is that business people in the United Kingdom and United States posing as supposedly independent customers in an attempt to boost sales is ethically wrong. It's a shame too, because all they have to do is offer up the smallest disclaimer to fall on the right side of the line.

What's also a shame is that "flogging" is completely unnecessary, but some less ethical people in my industry make a living at it, convincing their clients with a kindergarten argument that it's all right because everybody is doing it. Sure, "astroturfing" as Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post correctly calls it, it is not new. Companies, politicians, and governments have hired "influencers" in specific demographics to spread the word about a product or service or political issue for years.

Microsoft even landed in hot water after it offered to pay a blogger to change technical articles on Wikipedia, the community-produced Web encyclopedia site. Microsoft's defense is that the articles were heavily written by people at IBM Corp. Microsoft also claims it has gotten nowhere trying to correct what it defines as "inaccuracies" by following Wikipedia protocol.

To me, the Microsoft case pales in comparison to a business pretending to be a consumer (maybe Microsoft is right and maybe Microsoft is wrong in this case), but it certainly reminds us that Wikipedia is hardly the end all to research. Still, Microsoft would have been better off commissioning an article that refuted Wikipedia or simply finding someone sympathetic who would have done it for free. (Oh right, that would mean developing a public relations strategy. How silly of me.)

The bottom line is that no one needs to fake it to reach the same effect. There are plenty of publications that will run feature releases without a single edit (sometimes, anyway). There are plenty of journalists and bloggers who become product fans. There are plenty of consumers who seem perfectly willing to accept advertorials as fact, even with disclaimers.

And, of course, it doesn't take much to realize that if your advertising is ineffective, maybe you have the wrong message. That seems like a great place to start, at least much better than spending even more money trying to cheat the public.


Monday, February 12

Pickling A Candidate: John Edwards

When John Edwards hired bloggers Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, his plan seemed simple enough. Pick two bloggers with an existing audience and have them make a grand slam on the Internet, Babe Ruth style. Unfortunately, he didn't hire two babes.

So far, the Marcotte and McEwan blog batting average is the worst in the league, giving the campaign a black eye and placing Edwards in a bit of a pickle, somewhere between first and second base. It's not a good place to be when you're trailing in third place, according to the latest Fox poll.

As a quick recap, visit YouTube for the CNN scandle coverage or read my earlier Being Semi-Public post. Keep in mind, both CNN and I passed on referencing the more hateful posts penned by Marcotte and McEwan.

What interested me the most, from a communication standpoint, is what would Edwards do facing a no-win communication situation (as I alluded to last week: if he fires the bloggers, he looks like he's pandering to the right; if he keeps the bloggers, he looks like he's turning his back on those offended). Edwards, forgetting that standing between first and second base is hardly safe, tried to play both ends toward the middle.

"The tone and the sentiment of some of Amanda Marcotte's and Melissa McEwen's posts personally offended me. It's not how I talk to people, and it's not how I expect the people who work for me to talk to people. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that kind of intolerant language will not be permitted from anyone on my campaign, whether it's intended as satire, humor or anything else," his statement read, just before standing firm against the right, saying he intended to keep them.

Huh? I guess he wasn't that offended.

"But I also believe in giving everyone a fair shake. I've talked to Amanda and Melissa; they have both assured me that it was never their intention to malign anyone's faith, and I take them at their word. We're beginning a great debate about the future of our country, and we can't let it be hijacked. It will take discipline, focus, and courage to build the America we believe in," he said.

And therein lies the pickle. No one is happy with his decision, probably not even Marcotte and McEwan, who also participated in Team Edwards' first example of "discipline, focus, and courage."

"My writings on my personal blog, Pandagon on the issue of religion are generally satirical in nature and always intended strictly as a criticism of public policies and politics. My intention is never to offend anyone for his or her personal beliefs, and I am sorry if anyone was personally offended by writings meant only as criticisms of public politics." — Amanda Marcotte

In other words: I did not have the discipline and focus to write satire that can be distinguished from hate speech, nor do I have the courage to stand behind those words today. Please, please, please, let me keep my job.

"Shakespeare's Sister is my personal blog, and I certainly don't expect Senator Edwards to agree with everything I've posted. We do, however, share many views - including an unwavering support of religious freedom and a deep respect for diverse beliefs. It has never been my intention to disparage people's individual faith, and I'm sorry if my words were taken in that way." — Melissa McEwen

In other words: I am not really apologizing for what I wrote, but I will apologize for those who took it the wrong way, er, exactly the way I meant it. I don't believe in everything Edwards stands for, but a paycheck is a pretty powerful convincer.

As I wrote last week, there was only one clear solution to solve this mini crisis communication problem: Marcotte and McEwen could have resigned. Then, Edwards could have been offended, but not fired them. Marcotte and McEwen could have stood by their ill-advised opinions, ensuring their rhetoric readers didn't see them as sellouts.

Instead, Edwards sent out one of the worst statements ever released in a bid for President of the United States. And, if Edwards' attempt to play the middle and his staff's attempt to offer faux apologies is any indication of how he will run his upcoming campaign, then I just don't see how he can get to home plate.


Friday, February 9

Resigning For Others: Cartoon Network

Wow! Kudos for Harry R. Weber over at the Associated Press for breaking the news that, yes, indeed, the notion that all publicity is good publicity is dead. At least, that is the way I read it as Jim Samples, head of the Cartoon Network, resigned following a marketing stunt that caused a terrorism scare in Boston and led police to shut down bridges and send in the bomb squad.

According to the Associated Press, the announcement of Samples' resignation came in an internal memo to Cartoon Network staff members. He said that regretted what had happened and felt compelled to step down in recognition of the gravity of the situation that occurred under his watch.

"It's my hope that my decision allows us to put this chapter behind us and get back to our mission of delivering unrivaled original animated entertainment for consumers of all ages," said Samples.

The resignation of Samples also follows the news that "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" demographic remains unchanged in the wake of the bomb scare. The cartoon averaged 386,000 viewers last week; 380,000 viewers a week prior. I suspect Samples may be the first, but not the last person or, perhaps, company to slip from sight over guerilla marketing gone wrong.

“Interference did the slimy Sony Ericsson campaign on the Empire State Building, and now this. But most importantly, the people they hired have zero remorse,” Buzz Marketing CEO and author Mark Hughes told Adotos, seeing it much the same way we did days ago.

Sure, Interference, Inc. apologized, but there comes a time when one wonders whether an apology is enough. You can usually tell by measuring the sincerity of the apology along with any course correction or offer of restitution. Isn't that right, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan? Oh right, we're saving that for Monday.

You two could learn a lot from Samples, who did the right thing, and in his case, it might not even have been necessary. With sincerity, good luck, Mr. Samples.


Experimenting With Blogs: Recruiting

A few weeks ago, as I was introducing just over a dozen University of Nevada, Las Vegas, students to my "Writing for Public Relations" class, I noted how social media (blogging) and the internet have made public relations a moving target. The rules of engagement are changing and public relations practitioners would be wise to stay ahead of the curve.

In some cases, I said, some of the information I'll share over the next 11 weeks will be obsolete (the structure of a news release, perhaps, among them). But some things, I stressed, will remain unchanged. For example: you cannot choose what the media says about you, but you can choose how you react to it. The same applies to bloggers, which tend to be even bigger wild cards in the game of communication.

In answering by example, I referenced how while writing about my living case study on Jobster, one blogger attempted to take me to task, going a bit beyond the difference of opinion and giving me the moniker “Mr. Mustache" and calling me a sissy. The majority of my students were, very literally, slack-jawed and appalled.

Look, I'm always up for a game now and again, so given that most of my students are working professionals in addition to attending UNLV, I asked what they thought I should do. Of all the answers, ranging from ignoring him to considering a slander suit (imagine!), one still sticks in my mind because only one student got the joke.

"You should have shaved off your mustache," she said. "And that will be that!"

No, I have not shaved my mustache; I only do that from time to time, temporarily, if someone pays me $100. (I'm not one of those guys who is "afraid" to shave it off). I did not file a slander suit (they meant libel, but that's why they are students) and I wouldn't even have a real case if I was silly enough to do so. I did not ignore him.

What I did do was choose how I would react to the labeling and I chose to find it funny, because, well, it was funny. Then I applied the most of basic public relations strategies, responding to his argument (but in my style), which generally does not include name calling. We agreed to disagree on the issue, and both offered up that we were mutual fans despite our different styles.

Since, I've written about two other recruiting companies (Talent Zoo and Monster) for different reasons related to communication, mostly because I'm tracking Jobster to wrap up the case study sometime in the near future. Or maybe not.

You see, Recruiting Animal e-mailed me a couple days ago, inviting me to join the growing group of talented bloggers over at Recruiting I've visited the blog a few times, and know that two other bloggers I met while tracking Jobster (Shannon Seery and Amitai Givertz) also contribute there from time to time.

So I accepted the invitation from the blogger who called me a sissy, despite repeated warnings that I could expect equally fiery and unabashed comments and critiques: "Also note that participation in a joint blog would not hamper our ability to criticize each other as fiercely as is common online."

Certainly, Recruiting Animal is not everybody's cup of tea (though he prefers to be called, in his words, a "prick"), but I find his posts a nice blend of practical and entertaining commentary. He also encouraged me to check around about him; nah, I already had a sense of what other people thought of him and also know I generally get along with people who aren't vanilla (not that there is anything wrong with vanilla). I look forward to getting to know him more: good, bad, or indifferent.

In sum, it's an experiment, which I find especially interesting because this seems like such an unlikely association. Heck, Recruiting Animal has already asked that I quit saying "thank you" so much, noting he never got that I would from my posts. That's okay. I would have never guessed Recruiting Animal has a real name (he does, you know ... shhhhh.)

Of course, I also look forward to getting to know the other writers, authors, and bloggers at Recruiting ... I've read some good stuff over there. So in addition to mentioning that some posts "here" will be reframed for "there," this can also serve as my post first-post introduction, which hopefully is more entertaining than writing "blah, blah, blah" about me.


Thursday, February 8

Being Semi-Public: Marcotte and McEwan

Amanda Marcotte learned a hard lesson when she lost her position on the John Edwards campaign: being a public figure, er, semi-public figure (as I call these growing middle ranks, myself included) is not always what it is cracked up to be. Some people have a knack for it. Others do not.

Despite some quarters trying to claim that Marcotte and Melissa McEwan are being unfairly persecuted as bloggers (they are not), the simple truth is that their decision to be semi-public came with consequences that they didn't expect. The rhetoric that landed them a gig on a presidential bid is the same rhetoric that may cost them their jobs.

The blog cited above, Pandragon, is making this case: "Whatever opinions Melissa and Amanda hold on a variety of political issues, they are completely their own. The fact is that they have used profanity in their posts, and wrote rants that many disagree with, but their forums are about personal expression and opinion, not journalism or op-eds for a major paper."

Wrong. It has always been common practice for political campaigns to pass on campaign people who are known to have made extreme, disparaging public statements despite their perceived talent.

Pandragon also says Glen Greenwood, author and former New York City litigator, hits the mark when he wrote: "I do not know of many bloggers, or citizens generally, who do not have some views that would be offensive to large groups of people and who periodically express those views in less than demure ways, but if that is going to be the standard, we ought to apply it universally to all bloggers who are affiliated with political campaigns."

Invalid. When campaigns consider someone who is semi-public for the team, it only makes sense for the campaign to weigh how many votes could be lost due to "views that would be offensive to large groups of people" as opposed to votes won for any other reason, which is why Greenwood's "Hynes" political spin doesn't hold water.

Look, I'm not saying anyone is right or wrong as much as I am saying that if you strive to become a semi-public figure with heated, passionate, or bigoted remarks, you can expect that the loss of privacy is the price of admission. Good journalists have known this for a long time whereas some bloggers don't seem to get it.

Good journalists appreciate that the truth — not opinions — will be their shield if they eventually want to move onto another career. Likewise, even good op-ed writers temper their rants with reasoned arguments. Not so with some bloggers, who somehow think they are exempt from any accountability or responsibility when they write. It is delusional to think so.

For example, it would be silly for 15-minutes-of-fame-are-over blogger Spocko to apply for a position at Disney any time in the near future, after he berated the company for months and months over what its subsidiary KFSO did (or did not do, upon reflection of how much was taken out of context).

Likewise, it would be equally perplexing to think that I would be a top pick for a future Gavin Newsom campaign after yesterday's post despite my experience on city, county, and state campaigns. Of course, this post was an exception because I usually limit any observation to the "verb" and not the "subject."

In sum, it is absurd to think that any public opinion posted on a blog could never potentially interfere with your career, regardless of the degree to which you achieve exposure. Employers, political or otherwise, are becoming much more savvy in searching and considering blog entries and Myspace profiles in an effort to hire the best employees. Sometimes it might not matter what you have written. Sometimes it might. As a blogger, whether you want to consider this or roll the dice is up to you, but don't cry foul play if it bites you on the backside.

Specifically for Marcotte and McEwen, what they have written seems to matter for three reasons: 1. For Edwards, faith and family is part of the message. 2. For Edwards, it doesn't seem to make sense to keep people who aspire to capture more spotlight than the campaign, especially because their opinions greatly distract from Edwards' message. 3. They didn't offer to resign and/or exonerate Edwards, which left him in a no-win situation (if he keeps them, he's wrong ... if he fires them, he's wrong).

Hmmm... if they really cared about Edwards, they would resign (unless urged to stay on). It's the right thing to do as opposed to being right.


Wednesday, February 7

Spinning To Disaster: Gavin Newsom

I first learned of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to hit his self-destruction button over at Recruiting Animal's blog and, as a political consultant, I have been itching to write about it ever since. Wow ... the difference a couple days can make.

Without a doubt, Newsom wants to apply the "celebrity spin" card in an attempt to save his political career, which, in my opinion, ended the day he said "I think the public in many cases finds it rather entertaining that suddenly they have someone who's still alive holding public office." Considering he said this in response to admitting an affair with the wife of a former top campaign aide, I guess he failed to appreciate that the people of San Francisco did not elect him to be entertaining.

In politics, there is one cliche that holds true: where there's smoke, there's fire. And sometimes, it's a real barn burner. Yesterday, Newsom attempted to spin the affair story away with the sudden realization he has a drinking problem.

No one was surprised, but many seem perplexed why Newsom would mount one scandal on another. After all, he had already come under fire as supervisor Jake McGoldrick called the mayor a “pathetic role model” who should resign. McGoldrick is not alone in his opinion, but Newsom seems to be gaining some sympathy from some very misguided people. And, in my opinion, supervisor Sophie Maxwell is at the front of this misguided pack.

“This is the mayor’s personal business and affairs,” says Maxwell. “If I look at what the mayor’s been doing on The City’s business I don’t see a reason to resign.”

What? Ms. Maxwell, with all due respect, an utter lack of judgement has everything to do with his ability to lead, and it goes well beyond making San Francisco a three-ring circus. Sure, the affair shows the shallowness of his character, driven by ego. Yes, the noted drinking problem demonstrates a man out of control, largely claiming to be unaccountable for his actions. But the real crime here is his handling of, well, everything.

After all, it is Newsom who made these personal problems the center of public attention during several press conferences. So please, spare me the idea that he is a victim. He is not and, even if he was, he is only a victim by his own hand, er, mouth, er, whatever.

If you want to meet a victim, check in with the campaign aide who will have to endure what experts say is 3-5 years of pain and suffering as he recovers (if he is lucky enough to recover) from this dual betrayal. Add to that additional exposure in a society much more sympathetic to women who are victimized by cheating spouses. Without a doubt, too many people assume the husband must have done something to alienate his wife. Maybe, maybe not.

The fact is that the only thing more appalling than Newsom's attempt to lampoon his unethical behavior is the utter idiocy of political consultant David Latterman's take on the situation.

“I can’t comment about whether he’s truly an alcoholic. There’s obviously been rumors about his drinking for quite a while,” he said. “But this is what celebrities do when they screw up, they go to rehab: Mel Gibson, Kramer, and now Gavin Newsom. It’s a tried and true public relations technique.”

Um, sorry, but Newsom has no celebrity status outside the context of his immoral, unethical behavior. Mayors are not celebrities and the public should not be expected to give elected officials (who are responsible for much more than a personal movie-making career) the same second chances they seem so willing to extend to actors, actresses, authors, and musicians.

While we have come to expect celebrities to enter rehabs and have affairs, I think we must appreciate that celebrities are different. Celebrities are not charged with governance of others. It does not impact the residents of San Francisco if Mel Gibson gets drunk. It does not damage them if Michael Richards needs anger management.

It does directly impact them if their mayor becomes the poster child for breaking personal and public trust on every level while claiming he is not responsible for his actions (the alcohol is). Further, it is deplorable that Newsom is so naive to think that you can create a media frenzy and claim that reporters are out of line in asking questions about his recent confessions. To think that he would be so arrogant to chastise an Examiner reporter who tried to ask a question by saying, “Could you possibly be respectful and could I close the door?”

It seems to me that question better belongs to his former campaign aide: “Could you possibly be respectful and leave my wife alone?”

As another Examiner article reveals: a political insider, who did not want to be named, called Newsom “thin-skinned” and said the reason why the mayor’s having a hard time with the press is because for the first several years of his tenure, “he had a relative love affair with the media.” And so goes the story of wannabe public figures who regret getting their wish.

Maybe someone should have told Newsom that getting at the truth and shaming the devil supersedes all relationships in the career of a reporter. Hmmm... it's kind of like a spouse I imagine. The love affair is great until something or someone changes the relationship. Imagine that. Except in this case, Mayor Newsom, you are solely responsible for your hurt feelings.

Funny. A few days ago, I might have been able to salvage this one. Today, I'd rather watch him spin himself to disaster.


Tuesday, February 6

Paying For Promotion: Turner Broadcasting

In a continuing tale of two companies that thought they were being bold with guerilla marketing, Turner Broadcasting Systems and Interference Inc. have agreed to pay the city of Boston some $2 million for the advertising campaign that caused a bomb scare.

The campaign, which was originally budgeted in the thousands (with freelancers making a few hundred each), will be forever immortalized as one of the biggest abuses of guerilla marketing in history. For its part, Turner Broadcasting has handled its crisis communication like professionals.

It has released several statements taking full responsibility for the "unconventional marketing tactic" and apologizing for hardships caused to Boston area residents. Other companies would have thought to pass the buck right back at their marketing firm for the stunt, especially after some public outcry that attempts to pin the advertising debacle on Boston.

"We understand now that in today's post-Sept. 11 environment, it was reasonable and appropriate for citizens and law enforcement officials to take any perceived threat posed by our light boards very seriously and to respond as they did," the Turner statement said. Turner Broadcasting has added it will review its policies concerning local marketing efforts to ensure that they are not disruptive or threatening.

In almost complete contrast, Interference Inc. handled it crisis communication like, well, a guerilla marketing firm, going underground when the going got tough — delayed statements, slanted apologies, and no spokespeople (other than wannabe funny men freelancers who are still facing charges that will probably be dropped) offering comment for days while Turner Broadcasting took the heat. While the firm's attorney argues that the company acted with "due diligence" to correct the problems caused, it is unclear how much of the $2 million Interference Inc. will cough up.

Some people are now saying that $2 million looks like a bargain considering "the amount of publicity the Cartoon Network received for its Aqua Teen Hunger Force promotion." Not really. Most news reports last night omitted any mention of Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the Cartoon Network, preferring to focus on Turner Broadcasting and Interference, Inc. instead.

I suppose there is some truth to what people are saying though: you can't buy that kind of "bad" publicity. But it's hardly worth the praise Interference Inc. is receiving in some blog quarters, especially because such praise will only encourage other misguided firms to duplicate the stunt. The price tag, $2 million, will only become steeper.

According to others who are less sympathic to Interference Inc., The Boston Globe suggested that Interference Inc. knew about the bomb scare in Boston as early as 1:25 p.m. on Wednesday and emailed the installers, Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky, asking them to keep quiet. Interference, Inc. denies this claim.

But then again, Interference Inc. did not bail the freelancers out of jail. That was handled by friends and relatives. For what it is worth, Interference, Inc. has done some amazing work in the past. The guerilla marketing for Shark Week was a stroke of brilliance without the usual vandalism associated with the company.

All this leaves us with the same question once again. Is all publicity good publicity? Let's add it all up.

• For $2 million plus, the Cartoon Network's Aqua Teen Hunger Force will best remembered, not for its scripts or entertainment value (if you like that sort of thing), for a bomb scare in Boston.

• Turner Broadcasting barely escaped brand damage, but only because it has some good crisis communicators on board. Even so, they will be slow to embrace the next wild idea because one misstep will only cause them to relive this incident.

• Interference Inc. will forever be questioned by its clients, seldom given the opportunity to break away from status quo again, making it irrelevant in the future. And that assumes anyone will want to touch them. One sidewalk stencil on your behalf from these guys and your company will be drawn right back into what might be the biggest bomb scare in marketing history.

Hmmm... it looks like a net loss to me. Somewhat off point, or maybe not, if all publicity is good publicity, it seems much safer and cheaper simply to release a sex tape.

Then again, if any good is to come out of this, it might be that CEOs will finally realize that if your agency is getting more attention than your product, you might start to shop around. Good agencies are all about the products they promote, preferring the product — not the agency — to be the focus of attention.


Monday, February 5

Bashing Ghosts: The Branding Foundry

The Branding Foundry, which is the brainchild of Rowland Hanson, the former Microsoft marketing "guru" who is credited with coming up with the name Windows, is already facing its first brand challenge.

After a great write-up by venture capital reporter John Cook in Seattle, Kevin Young, president of the unproven and fledgling company, forgets his position and spends more time bashing ghosts (anonymous posters) than he does delivering a message, leaving some to wonder what The Branding Foundry is really about.

"However, in the spirit of our business community, it's sad to see that people take time out of their day to share their venomous comments to feel better about themselves," said Young. "As they say, 'the farther up the flag pole one ascends in life, the more your backend shows.'"

I'm not sure which anonymous post got under his skin more: 1. "This thread is polluted with self-serving tripe. John, you need to weed out the thinly-veiled ads." 2. "Don't see how this adds any value. Looks like a predatory scheme with no risk." 3. [Rowland Hanson] "Looks like a lounge lizard."

Of course, Young's ghost bashing was only met with more ghosts bashing back: 1. "What an incredibly arrogant post." 2. "I don't know what's crappier- the story or the posts that followed." 3. "Maybe the 'guru' and his trolls should ..."

And the debate, whether there "should be" or "shouldn't be" anonymous posters, begins all over again. Ho hum. Boring.

Actually, there is a decent discussion that took place at active rain, which references, among others, Jason Goldberg at Jobster, who asked about anonymous posts a few weeks ago (a great question at the wrong time).

Active rain blogger Barry Hurd made a decent argument, despite taking it a bit too far by questioning the ethics of anonymous posting. On this point, we disagree. Anonymous posting is not about free speech or ethics, in my opinion.

You see, over the last few years, I've seen anonymous posters (and anonymous bloggers) leave as many brilliant comments as they have unrelated, unfunny swipes that are easily dismissed. Their reasons for posting anonymously range from anything and everything from fear (not wanting to lose their jobs) and faux fear (Spocko being 'afraid' of big bad ABC, ha!) to protecting their own brand (I want to say something, but don't want it to rub off on me) and simply being too lazy, or perhaps too busy, to register with the site.

The bottom line is these people have a zillion reasons to post anonymously on sites that allow it. Not all sites do. Cook does. David Maister does not. Seth Godin doesn't allow comments at all, but he does allow trackbacks. Every one of them has different reasons for their decisions.

For example, I do not allow them, but not for reasons that most people think. In my case, I simply grew tired of deleting spam ads, lots and lots of spam ads.

If it wasn't for that, I would allow them (and used to). However, even if I did allow them, I would not personally post an anonymous comment (though sometimes I'm too busy to register and just type in my name). But, for me, it's par for the course. I don't have any reason to post anonymously because I've been threatened several times for working on certain political and commercial campaigns. And in the end, I decided that I would rather be fearless in life than live in fear. (Besides, threats only apply if your candidate loses or your commercial client folds).

However, since most people haven't learned they can live fearlessly, I don't begrudge them for posting anonymously where allowed. In fact, I say leave the anonymous posters alone for some very good reasons.

Cook's anonymous posters always make for an interesting, though sometimes silly, commentary on the events he writes about.

It used to be that way over at Inside Nevada Politics until they disallowed anonymous posters midstream during the 2006 political campaign, after someone called a candidate "dumb as a post" among other things.

Nowadays, most comments on that blog have thinned to nothing, because most people don't want to bash politicians (and the reporters in some cases) publicly. Most don't want such bashes to rub off on their companies. Go figure.

Anyway, what Inside Nevada Politics lost when they made that decision was honest discussion. And, with that, the "subjects" of many posts missed out on what the opposition thought of them.

It's true. When I was working on the Bob Beers campaign, I used to read all those anonymous comments faithfully, weighing their credibility. While I might not have responded to them, I certainly used the negative comments to develop strategies that addressed every complaint, just in case even one of those "ideas" caught fire.

Heck, in one case, an "anonymous poster" outlined a good portion of our opponent's strategy, making the point that for those reasons we would lose. So while other campaign members were up in arms about it, I calmly smiled and saw it for what it was: GOLD!

But then, Inside Nevada Politics disallowed anonymous posts and we were back to flying partially blind. Our window into the minds of our opponent was somewhat diminished. Oh well.

Chalk all this up as lesson number one for Young and The Branding Foundry. It's better to see what the opposition is thinking than to think you are untouchable on your very high horse, er, ladder, as you call it.

The second lesson is for everyone questioning the validity of anonymous posts. Simply put: "Whether anonymous posts (or anonymous blogs for that matter) should be allowed or not" is the wrong question.

The fact is that anonymous posts exist. And the question you could be asking is "What are we going to do about it?"

Well, we could run around the Web chasing ghosts, responding to them (which only gives them more credibility, by the way), and attempting to crush their credibility while looking like we take them ever so seriously ... or, we can file them away as insight into the opposition, maybe using them as another opportunity to get our message out, whatever that might be.

The Branding Foundry, unfortunately picked option A, and for all it gained by a well-written and flattering post by Cook, Young erased almost all of it by trying to be a "ghost buster" rather than a "brand master." I'm sorry Mr. Young, but you cannot hit something that is not there.

Besides, ghosts tend to multiply when you swing at one. I think it has to do with the "whoosh" sound people make, swinging at nothing.

Anyway, in closing, I would like to add that there is no venom here. I wish The Branding Foundry all the best of luck in sticking to a message rather than trying to bust ghosts. Hopefully, they will even share a few lessons with future clients...

No positive news is exempt from criticism, no matter where you think you are on the "ladder" of life. And bashing ghosts is an exercise in futility at its best. Almost always, you'll end up looking silly.


Friday, February 2

Writing Web Sites: AP Stylebook

Last night, I was caught a bit off guard when one of my students opened up the AP Stylebook to inform me my take on "Website" was wrong, according to the Associated Press. So naturally, today I started doing some homework on this particular rule in what many, myself included, call the writer's bible.

Kudos to Debbie Weil over at Wordbiz Report for doing my homework for me and the rest of us back in 2003. She wrote Norman Goldstein, AP Stylebook editor, after 65 percent of her readers claimed "website" to be correct over "Web site." Goldstein wrote back...

"Style, in the sense we're talking about, really means a preference (in spelling or punctuation or capitalization or usage) when there is a choice to be made. AP made the choice of "Web site" for what we thought were very good, language-based, reasons. Others are free to use their preference - as long as it is clear to a reader and consistent.

However, none of us can claim to create a "new language," for the Internet, or elsewhere. (Every generation of teenagers, for example, comes up with its own "language," but it fades quickly into oblivion.) More creative writers than I have said - wisely - that "usage will push new meanings into currency no matter how many authorities hurl themselves into the path of change."

Weil then goes on to list several solid cases made by her readers, who would prefer AP change its ruling and give us the evidence we need to write Website or website as one word. Add me to the list of miffed writers. Web site needs to be fixed up for the times, giving way to Website or website (I don't care about caps).

I appreciate where Goldstein is coming from in his answer, but for those of us who preach that AP is the style of choice in today's world, using it as a higher authority for clients, students, and others, we need some help here. Too many allowances will undermine the original intent of clear and consistent communication, especially if we teach public relations practitioners to conform to AP Style as it is the style most embraced by newspapers and magazines worldwide (with exception, it seems, to the word Website). Too many allowances will toss more toward the Chicago Style Manual, which is being revised online with new vigor, causing the rest of us to study two sources (ha, I do anyway) as opposed to having one held high.

Sure, I suppose making up some hubub about the word Website seems a bit much, but the time has come for AP Style to revisit its ruling on "Web site" for what was thought to be very good, language-based, reasons. The reason I say this is because it has put us in the awkward position of either violating our trusted Style source or joining what appears to be an ever diminished percentage of readers who agree that "Web site" is right.


Killing With No Comment: Interference, Inc.

After several days of offering "no comment" about its part in the Cartoon Network's Boston bomb scare, Interference, Inc. has replaced its entire Web presence with with a single statement.

"We at Interference, Inc. regret that our efforts on behalf of our client contributed to the disruption in Boston yesterday and certainly apologize to anyone who endured any hardship as a result. Nothing undertaken by our firm was in any way intended to cause anxiety, fear or discomfort to anyone. We are working with Turner Broadcasting and appropriate law enforcement and municipal authorities to provide information as requested and take other appropriate actions."

From a crisis communication standpoint, the company might be dead. Dead for what it did not say; dead for what was said.

Sure, right now, there are ample bloggers out there attempting to defend the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force" mooninite character (as if the delinquent animated figures need defending), but for as much as CEO Sam Ewen of Interference, Inc. thought he knew guerilla marketing, he knows nothing about crisis communication to manage the mishandling of Turner Broadcasting's campaign. When bad news happens, the messenger is the message and Ewen is nowhere in sight.

It was different in 2001. interviewed Ewen back then, with Ryan Naraine asking him questions like "What's the trick to make sure it's appealing and not annoying?"

"If you put the effort into the campaign, it isn't obtrusive at all," said Ewen. "Of course, there is good and bad marketing. The goal is not just to be there but to be there at the right time and in the right place."

Unfortunately for Ewen, some six years later, Boston turned out to be the wrong time and the wrong place, with the mooninite infiltration becoming one of the best examples of bad marketing out there. It caused panic, wasted resources, and sent Turner Broadcasting scrambling to prove it is a responsible company despite the scare (they've been handling it well enough).

Where Interference, Inc. is going wrong today is that it continues to allow Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, the two freelancers arrested, to act as its unofficial spokespeople, one of whom mused that what he really wanted to talk about was "haircuts of the 1970's."

Assistant Attorney General John Grossman, on the other hand, wanted to talk about something else. "It's clear the intent was to get attention by causing fear and unrest that there was a bomb in that location," he said.

You don't have to read between the lines to know that "intent" will mean the difference between a prison sentence and freedom for the two men, and quite possibly some employees at Interference, Inc. Since Interference, Inc. won't talk, its best message yesterday, also spun by Berdovsky, was that "they were up there for three weeks and no one noticed."

In other words, no one noticed. In other words, until Boston became sensitized because of an unrelated bomb scare, the marketing was nothing more than a waste of money. Of course, that pales in comparison to the money that will be wasted by Turner Broadcasting to make things right. I suspect Interference, Inc. will be footing some of the bill too.

To me, the real crime here is that Turner Broadcasting was sold a bad bill of goods when a much more effective campaign could have been created. Sure, the company didn't have to buy into the idea (so it too is the master of its own destiny), but nonetheless, Interference, Inc. abused what would have otherwise been a worthwhile tactic.

Getting back to what people like Seth Godin and Jay Levinson wrote about ten years ago, the real idea behind guerilla marketing was "helping small businesses break out of the helpless rut of leaving advertising to the big guys."

Today, it hass turned into something else. Big companies now employ it because they're getting a lower rate of return on traditional advertising dollars. (Hey, maybe it's the ad message and not the method. You think?) But in this case, I can think of dozens of things that might have worked just as well without the panic factor.

Considering it owns the network and controls the promotion time, Cartoon Network could have launched its mooninite invasion campaign on television, reinforced with direct mail (miniature mooninites, maybe, assuming they didn't tick), Internet marketing pop up banners, and a few cool billboards with big ones from the mother ship or whatever they use to get around. Sure, I'm only playing at a 5-second solution and not developing a real campaign here, but at least it doesn't terrify when it isn't being ignored. At least it's a sliver of thinking instead of hype, pomp, and ineffectiveness.

Not thinking, you see, is what will likely kill the Interference, Inc. folks even more than Boston authorities want to. They didn't think when they launched the otherwise forgettable campaign. They didn't think when they offered no comment. They didn't think when they took their site down and replaced it with a generic apology to no one from no one. And they certainly aren't thinking by allowing a freelancer—a wannabe comic—to be their primary spokesperson.

Oh well. There is a lot of that going on in the communication business lately. Lots of ideas; not much thinking. I call it communication suicide by "blank." For Interference, Inc. the "blank" is no comment.


Thursday, February 1

Creating Panic In Boston: Cartoon Network

The Cartoon Network learned the hard way yesterday that guerilla marketing is fine unless it looks like guerilla warfare. That was the outcome of its marketing campaign as federal, state and local police swarmed around Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge as reports poured in of suspicious devices, closing roads, tunnels and bridges for hours.

In total, 38 battery-operated ads featuring a character called a mooninite flipping the bird for an upcoming TV show “Aqua Teen Hunger Force" were located, turned off, and detonated in some cases. At least 10 caused bomb scares.

“It’s outrageous, reckless and totally irresponsible,” Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty said, after demanding Turner Broadcasting, the owner of Cartoon Network, reimburse the city of Boston for costs associated with public safety. “What a waste of resources.”

Turner Broadcasting was quick to respond with regret that the devices were mistakenly thought to pose any danger. It also said, in a statement, that the devices have been placed in 10 cities for two to three weeks in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Austin, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. Turner is working with local and federal law enforcement in each city to ensure the devices are removed.

The marketing company responsible for the campaign, Interference Inc., said it would need until Thursday before it could issue a comment. Thursday?

Its Website, which bills it as a nationwide guerilla and alternative marketing agency from "idiation" through tactile implementation and staffing, was down this morning.

Unless I'm mistaken, back in 1999 Interference, Inc. was responsible for The Mining Company's name change to, placing the name on park benches, at train stops, and spray painting it on sidewalks. Most communities consider the company's stunts vandalism, but Sam Ewen always felt that the neat thing about his version of guerilla marketing is that the media can buy into it and the campaign becomes the story. Ah yes, crazy publicity stunts. Har, har. Mission accomplished... sort of.

This time, with the whole world watching, two team members were arrested: Peter Berdovsky, 27, of Arlington, and Sean Stevens, 28, of Charlestown, one on a felony charge of placing a hoax device and one charge of disorderly conduct, state Attorney General Martha Coakley said.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with guerilla marketing and publicity stunts, except maybe that guerilla marketing stunts become passe after awhile, leaving agencies to seek ever more creative, intrusive, and destructive means to get their non-messages out.

Non-messages? Yep. Publicity stunts are generally reserved for those who have no message, kind of like “Aqua Teen Hunger Force," another Cartoon Network show that continues to glamorize delinquent behavior and target 8-year-old kids under the guise of cartoons made for adults. The risk is always the same. The more extreme the stunt, the greater the risk that your message will drive up negative impressions.

This time, it seems, Interference Inc., Cartoon Network, and Turner Broadcasting have hit the jackpot in brand damage. Even Gov. Deval Patrick summed: "It's a hoax, and it's not funny." To which, all I can think to add is that "it's a living case study in guerilla marketing gone wrong."

I'm waiting to hear what Interference Inc. has to say beyond the obvious. The obvious being: for all our crazy antics, we have no idea how to do crisis communication. We need at least 24 to 48 hours to craft a statement, which seems to be much longer than it took to put the devices up in the first place.


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